If anyone is wondering, this is coming from winking-widow‘s comment on our last post, so thank you for reminding me that this was a discussion that should happen.
Epistolary storytelling is a concept that should be familiar to most people who play video games, but we should go into a bit more depth because it does have some useful applications.
The basic concept behind epistolary storytelling is that the narrative is comprised of documents from within the setting itself. In an extremely traditional sense, this was letters written by the characters, though journal entries, book excerpts, and news articles are also common sources.
You have probably already encountered epistolary novels in the past, even if you didn’t know the term, however, if you want an example, Dracula by Bram Stoker is an easy recommendation. The bulk of the book consists of journal entries from various characters, though there are news clippings, and a mix of other sources.
If you’re coming to this from pop culture, you’ve probably been exposed to epistolary elements in other media. Video games in particular are extremely enamored of the audio log. In these cases, you’re looking at a hybrid structure where the player is experiencing one narrative (through the game mechanics), while the epistolary content creates a second narrative.
Much like first person limited, epistolary elements allow you delve into a character’s personality. They are the “author” of that document, and it should reflect who they are as a character. Except, (within in the fiction of that world) they wrote that piece. They created the document. Quite possibly with the understanding that others would read it. This allows for an intentionally deceptive narrator, without abusing the audience’s trust. This can even be used to set up a Rashomon style series of internal contradictions between characters, if you’re really wanting to make a puzzle out of things.
That paragraph above comes back to something that we get questions about occasionally. An author wants advice on how to lie to their audience, or hide plot details. It’s something we usually caution against. The author needs to be trusted by the audience to convey information accurately. In some cases, the author’s narrator will be a character who relays information inaccurately. (Again, we’re talking about first person limited.) However, that’s still tricky, because if that character abuses the audience’s trust, it’s something that does reflect on the author.
Characters like Fight Club‘s Tyler Durden only work because the narrator’s perspective is accurately relayed to the readers, even as every other character in the novel has a drastically different perspective on Tyler and the narrator. The narrator (and by extension, Chuck Palahnuik) is not lying to you. However, the narrator is suffering a serious psychological breakdown. His version of reality does not mesh with the objective version of his world.
Epistolary sources let you step around a lot of this. Because you’re writing what a character would communicate externally, instead of what they’re thinking, you have a lot of freedom. If a character would lie about something, they can. The biggest concern becomes ensuring that the audience can determine if a given character should be considered trustworthy. The nature of a document can also reflect how honest a character will be. For example: An email or letter may be downright manipulative, where the same character could be far more honest in a diary entry that they thought no one else would read.
The Epistolary format also gives the possibility to include larger context into something that would otherwise be first person limited. Documents from other characters allow you to inject perspectives that your primary narrator wouldn’t be able to report. Events they weren’t present for, or are beyond the scope of what they could see.
Two examples of this would be Watchmen and the Ciaphas Cain novels by Sandy Mitchel. Watchmen is, partially, drawn from Rorschach’s journal, but this is more of a framing device for that character’s captions. However, each issue ends with an epistolary document that further fleshes out the alternate history and politics of Watchmen. Additionally, the in setting comic book, Tales of the Black Freighter, serves as a thematic parallel to the events in the comic, with its narration bleeding over into the “real” world. (There’s a subtle bit of genius here, where Black Freighter comic panels and caption bubbles use stipple shading, which is absent from the rest of the book, and instantly sets them apart.) As a whole, Watchmen is not an epistolary comic, however it does make extensive use of the technique.
In the case of Sandy Mitchel’s Cain novels, it’s much simpler. The primary text is an autobiography by Ciaphas Cain. That text has been edited by another character, who included annotations for technical terms, added excerpts from other documents for context, and censored some portions of the text for personal reasons.
Finally, and this comes back to what Winking-Widow highlighted in her comment, you can play off factual errors in epistolary sources. You didn’t make a typo, the character made one. You didn’t say a character was a master swordsman at 4 instead of 14, your character misspoke, or misunderstood the person who relayed that information to them in the first place.
One of the really interesting things you can do with epistolary sources is present a level of mystery about the deeper workings of your world. You can obscure the metaphysics. It’s vital for the reader to be able to follow the story you’re telling. However, when you have multiple conflicting sources, you can create elements of ambiguity, particularly in the backstory for your world.
This is something you’ll encounter more often in interactive media, because the conflicting reports can be presented simultaneously and with equal weight. The video game example would be lore books, which directly contradict each other, but don’t give you the tools to assess which one is more likely to be true. Similarly, with open world structures, you’ll often see cases where the sources aren’t arranged to be encountered in a specific order.
In linear media (such as prose or video), you need to present one of those documents first. This will give it more weight than what comes later, so it’s harder to create, “either one could be true,” situations, as your audience will latch onto one of the documents. (Depending on presentation, this could be either one, and you will get a mix of preferences among your readers.)
The danger with this is a reader looking at your work and saying, “it doesn’t make sense.” Worse, they’re correct. This kind of conflicting information doesn’t make sense and asks the reader to make assessments on which account to believe. When presented with this, some readers will check out. Additionally, this kind of ambiguity should be handled carefully, because if you have a, “right,” and, “wrong,” document, you can disconnect from readers who picked the wrong answer.
There are ways to insert false information into your backstory, and epistolary elements (including dialog exposition) is a good option. However, always remember that there is an important distinction: If your characters attempt to mislead each other, or make factual mistakes, that’s fine. If you attempt to mislead your audience, that requires far more care and attention.